Notes on the Anthropocene

A group exhibition in Barcelona

Artists Diego Ferrari, Rosa Galindo and Rubén Martin de Lucas opened a group show, titled Notes on the Anthropocene, at Barcelona's Pasaje Montoya gallery in September 2020, in partnership with Pigment Gallery, as part of Barcelona Open Gallery Weekend, a week-long showcase of shows at independent galleries throughout the city.

It was a pleasure but also a challenge to be asked to write the texts for the exhibition catalogue as well as help with the concept and curation of the show. All in all it was an uplifting experience of international collaboration during an experience of pandemic lockdown and uncertainty. See the links below for more information on the exhibition, as well as the introductory text from the catalogue.

Introduction to the catalogue

We are here for only a short time, but the land endures. What if landscapes could speak? What story would they tell? Surely it would be an epic, of arrivals, vanishings, of denials, destruction, of waiting. Because the land has been waiting all this time, patiently, to become. They would also tell another story – still in progress: perhaps a love story, perhaps a tale of fatal error. The story of the beings who came, who loved the land too much, in the wrong way.

Landscapes, particularly wild places, can speak, but we just can’t hear them. Our ears are not tuned to the right frequency, we lack the imagination, they are speaking a runic, ancient language we have forgotten – there are other reasons, too, for our deafness. We don’t want to hear. Perhaps we only want to hear ourselves.

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 presents us with a wake-up call. This time, we must listen. We feel the pandemic has created a new world; not only the world of masks and social distancing, but also a new world of feeling. The truth is, we were already there, in that new realm. We have already crossed the line.

One name for this era is Anthropocene. The term is a recently coined word that brings together two elements derived from Greek: Anthropos, meaning human; and cene, era. The era has been defined as, variously, a geological epoch, an update of the Romantic sublime, a scientific reality, a political, economic and moral issue. In its purest sense it refers to the fact that the impact of humankind on the planet is now visible in the geological record for all time, through our carbon emissions, chemical footprint, and the large-scale planetary changes human activity is inflicting on our home, such as the melting of glaciers and ice sheets.

Visual art documents, interrogates and expresses the emotional structure of any era. In the case of the Anthropocene, the emotional quality is surprisingly difficult to describe and has an ample range: rage, shame, fervent denial, helplessness, anticipated loss and incipient grief. My own terms are: horrified delirium, an nihilistic accelerationism, an encompassing, universal mourning. None of these emotions, you will notice, is positive. The American critic Lauren Berlant has written that to be optimistic is ‘to look forward to being in the world.’ In the Anthropocene, optimism is difficult. We have killed it ourselves through species narcissism and an addiction to profit. In the Anthropocene we find ourselves in a crime novel, both victims and perpetrators.

What can artists do, when faced with the enormity of our predicament? We can bear witness, we can observe and present our findings. We can challenge, provoke, question. The scalar dimension of the Anthropocene and its seeming insolubility are two reasons why we have titled this exhibition Notes on the Anthropocene. We do not present any definitive solution to the momentous shift in the power dynamic between humanity and the non-human realm. Instead we offer an oblique, contingent look at our predicament. No one artist can change this reality, but we can express how we feel about living through it and, through a metaphysical transfer, suggest how the land itself might receive and express the blow we have dealt it. Artists and writers can also listen to the land. We can become its interpreters, we imagine what it is saying to us, under the threshold of human hearing, in its old stone tongue.

In this exhibition, drawing on video, fine art photography and painting, three contemporary artists reflect on the complexity of living in the Anthropocene. What unites them is an interest in boundaries. All three physically insert themselves into the land, taking risks, exerting bodily energy to catalyse and transform our awareness of the power of natural materials. Diego Ferrari draws actual lines on the landscape; Ruben Martin de Lucas’ work interrogates territory, borders and the nation state. Rosa Galindo creates impressionist canvases with materials that belie the paintings’ pastoral impression, devising what she calls (and which applies to all the works displayed here) ‘eco-geometry.’ These artists work with the natural realm to create their works, rather than use it as a backdrop or subject. The land is within the artwork. It is an active agent, a decisive ingredient. The land speaks through these works, challenging us to recognise and reflect on the conundrums of the Anthropocene, and the fate we are constructing for ourselves, for the Earth, for all time.

Jean McNeil, August 2020